Ducking the Quacking Koan: Soto Zen, Koan, and Kensho

Ducking the Quacking Koan: Soto Zen, Koan, and Kensho June 26, 2015

Old album_6 Eko HashimotoThe friendly-looking monk in the photo is Hashimoto Eko Roshi (1890-1965).

In about 1948, the young Katagiri Roshi heard Hashimoto Roshi say, “Sit down, become Buddha.”

Katagiri, then a new monk at Eiheiji, previously a failure in kamikaze school (he couldn’t get the training glider to fly straight toward the target) and a champion marathon runner, soon participated in his first Rohatsu sesshin. He determined to sit in full lotus no matter what, and even when he passed out and was dragged out of the zendo and thrown into the snow, he came to, and came back into the zendo, pulling his legs into full lotus.

Many years later, Katagiri Roshi reported how “Sit down, become Buddha,” had penetrated his heart and motivated him to throw himself into zazen wholeheartedly. Like really wholeheartedly, sitting down, becoming Buddha.

Hashimoto Roshi was one of the most important 20th Century Soto Zen teachers, and part of the Dogen revival movement that included Sawaki Kodo Roshi (branching into the Uchiyama and Deshimaru lines) and Kishizaza Ian Roshi (Suzuki Roshi’s dharma teacher).

Hashimoto Roshi was also a clear voice in the zazen-as-a-koan-free zone interpretation of Dogen’s teaching.

One of the themes that I’ve been working through in this blog for the last few years is that both just-sitting and koan introspection Zen are really about the same fundamental point and that the differences between the two approaches are often overstated for Japanese sectarian purposes that can now be released as Zen enters the global arena. I’ve argued, for example, that for Dogen, koan introspection and just-sitting were one and the same practice, that the version of just-sitting advocated by the narrative of the post-Meiji Soto orthodoxy often lacks wisdom teeth, and that verifying the truth of the buddhadharma for oneself (aka, kensho or satori) is vitally important.

In this post, I look at the sayings of three central figures in the post-Meiji Soto orthodoxy, Hashimoto Roshi, Sawaki Roshi, and Bokusan Roshi. I’ll suggest that these old teachers used koan and advocated for kensho while saying that they didn’t. In other words, the difference between their just-sitting approach and koan introspection was largely semantic and a question of emphasis.

First, Hashimoto Roshi’s statement, “Sit down, become Buddha,” is a fine example of a koan and Katagiri Roshi’s approach to it, embodying it fully, is a fine (and, yes, zealous) example of how to be the koan.

Some American apologists for the post-Meiji Soto orthodoxy insist that teachers like Katagiri Roshi and Hashimoto Roshi didn’t use koans in their teaching or claim, “Of course, there are koans in Soto Zen, but just not in zazen.”

“Sit down, become Buddha,” however, was intended for zazen. Hashimoto Roshi strongly encouraged the monks at Eiheiji to “sit down” in zazen and “become Buddha” on the cushion. Katagiri Roshi followed his instruction and focussed his zazen to this very practice of enlightenment.

I wonder what Hashimoto Roshi thought a koan was if “Sit down, become Buddha” wasn’t one for him. It’s curious how a great teacher like Hashimoto Roshi might have started out with the premise, “We don’t do koans,” but then taught a koan for the practice of just sitting – exactly what Dogen did, by the way (e.g., used koan to teach just sitting).

Second, Sawaki Kodo Roshi (1880-1965) in his recent Commentary of the Song of Awakening, writes, “When zazen is strong, suddenly at one stroke you realize the zen of the Buddha. That is to say, you grasp that you are Buddha.”

This example compliments the “Sit down, become Buddha” koan of Hashimoto Roshi and the similarity between what both of these masters’ sayings and Matsu’s koan “This very mind is Buddha” (Gateless Barrier, Case 30) is striking. Sawaki Roshi’s utterance, however, more clearly emphasizes a particular quality of zazen, strong sitting, that brings forth the identity of practitioner and Buddha: “You grasp that you are Buddha.”

In the koan-introspection tradition, the experience Sawaki Roshi encourages might be regarded as kensho, and could provide the basis for successive koan training while also illuminating what just-sitting is really about.

My third example of relatively recent Soto masters using a koan while saying they didn’t comes from Nishiari Bokusan Roshi (1821-1910). In his commentary on Dogen’s Genjokoan he says this:

“When the old teachers presented their essential teaching, they each had one phrase that none of their predecessors had chosen, and on which they based their teaching. With this phrase they penetrated a whole lifetime. Teachers in the past did not have two phrases. Therefore, that one phrase expressed their Dharmakaya [i.e., “truth body’]. For example, the “One Bright Jewel” of Xuansha, the “Cypress Tree” of Zhaozou, and “This very mind is Buddha” of Mazu are all words of iron never spoken by anyone before. With one phrase they thrust forward the suchness of the cosmos, and set in motion the same wheel of dharma as the Buddha. The same thing can be said of Dogen. He sees straight through the world of the ten directions as Genjokoan, which are his words of iron. When this phrase is cracked, the ninety-five fascicles appear here and there as branches of it. For that reason, the lifetime teaching of Dogen is all in the one phrase, Genjokoan.”

When one phrase is cracked, the truth body of Dogen and all the fascicles of the Shobogenzo are cracked. Crack one, crack all. Cut one, cut all. The resonance with what he’s saying here and the koan reformer Dahui’s punchline method, taking up a keyword like the mu koan and breaking through (kensho-ing), is unmistakable.  Punchlines would also be “One Bright Jewel,” any of Bokusan’s other examples, or, according to Bokusan, Dogen’s Genjokoan. Clearly, Bokusan draws an exact comparison between the koans of the great masters and Dogen’s Genjokoan.

A proponent of the post-Meiji Soto Orthodoxy, though, might again protest, “Yeah, but Bokusan certainly doesn’t say to sit with Genjokoan in zazen.”

Perhaps not, but Bokusan does give very mu-like koan instructions for working Genjokoan, “Then what in the world isGenjokoan‘? First of all, you should get it right down in your hara. This cannot be done solely by thinking.”

Sounds an awful lot like the instructions for sitting zazen with mu.

And yet, in the same work, Bokusan derides koan introspection:

“When you do zazen, you should become zazen thoroughly. There is no need to bring in the koans. If you work on koans during zazen, the koan becomes the master and zazen becomes the attendant. Thus zazen is no longer zazen. To abide at ease in steadfast non-thinking is the bull’s-eye of zazen. Other schools aside, the dharma descendants of Dogen Zenji should study Dogen Zenji’s Buddha dharma.”

To think that in koan introspection, the koan is the master and zazen is the attendant, is a profound misunderstanding of koan introspection.

Hashimoto Roshi, Sawaki Roshi, and Bokusan Roshi, great teachers though they were, may not have realized that what they were teaching and koan introspection were one and the same, nor that there descriptions of really sitting or really genjokoan-ing could also be called “kensho-ing.” The main difference between their teachings cited here and the koan introspection narrative lies in how in koan introspection a process is offered for unfolding an initial realization. That just-sitting Zen, and none of these teachers, as far as I know, offers such thing, in my view, is not something to boast about.

Nevertheless, in terms of koan and kensho, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’d say, it’s a duck.

Katagiri Roshi thought that now was the time, and that the West might be the place, to return to the Zen of the 6th Ancestor, before the split into the Rinzai and Soto lineages. I agree. Let’s move beyond sectarian posturing in our global dharma dialogue, celebrate our commonalities, and support each other in this great work.

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27 responses to “Ducking the Quacking Koan: Soto Zen, Koan, and Kensho”

  1. Return to the Zen of the 6th Ancestor? Why not return to the original teaching of Gautama the Buddha? Or did your teacher see “Zen” and the teaching of the Buddha as somehow different from each other?

    • Mike, in the Zen tradition of the 11th century and after, there is a direct lineage traced from Shakyamuni to the 6th Ancestor and after the 6th Ancestor, the Chinese lineages forked into two main branches, and then those two main branches forked again into several more branches. So the saying “return to the Zen of the 6th Ancestor” means going back to the main trunk before the splitting of the branches. Going back to the main trunk means returning to the original teaching of Siddhartha Gautama as it was passed to the 6th Ancestor. Remember that “6th Ancestor” only refers to sixth in the line of the Chinese Ancestors, and Nagarjuna himself is one of the 28 Indian Ancestors in that main trunk going back to Buddha. In Zen, Nagarjuna is called the 14th Ancestor.

      • I studied Dogen’s teaching long and hard in my youth. On that basis, FWIW, I think “return to the Zen of 6th Ancestor” is a phrase that Dogen would absolutely never have used. It smacks of the view of KYOGE-BETSUDEN, “a separate transmission outside the teachings, which Dogen attacked in Shobogenzo chap. 24, BUKKYO, The Buddha’s Teaching.

  2. Hi Mike, I think that for Katagiri the phrase was meant more as metaphor for beyond sectarian distinctions and pettiness. At least that’s how I see it. Not that he always was … nor am I…. Dosho

  3. Good answer, Dosho, if I may say so. Katagiri Roshi must have been a very sincere man — like certain other Japanese Zen masters I have known. But sometimes the greater the sincerity, the deeper the irony, don’t you think? I mean look at the way Master Kodo Sawaki taught people to sit, at least when he was younger. All that stiffening the spine and pulling in the chin, while preaching MU-SHOTOKU. My own teacher spent his life preaching reality. Just reality. Reality, reality, reality. And yet in some matters he seemed to be wilfully blind, and singularly unable to accept the reality as reality. You and I are good non-sectarians, but what are we going to do about all those pesky sectarian others? Shall we get together and wage a jihad against them?

    • “Under the beautiful flag of religion, we fight.” – Katagiri

      And you better be careful about using the “j” word – the NSA will be all over your email and phone!

  4. The
    confusion you highlight, Dosho, IMO, surrounds this main issue: “Just
    sitting” is the absence of what? What is negated by the “just.”
    In Nāgārjuna’s teaching, in Sanskrit, the answer is stated very
    plainly. Our task in just sitting is just this: to know the absence
    of those doings (saṁskārāḥ
    the 2nd in the 12 links) which are grounded in ignorance (avidyā,
    the 1st link). But in texts like the Lotus Sutra, Kumārajīva and
    others translated saṁskārān
    (doings, plural) as行
    singular). This had the effect of rendering the Buddha’s teaching of
    dependent arising more or less meaningless and ineffective – as a
    theory, if not as a fact. This I think is why the teaching of
    dependent arising is not given due emphasis in Shobogenzo. Without a
    good translation of the Buddha’s words into Chinese, even Dogen was
    not able clearly to see the link between the theory of dependent
    arising and the practice of just sitting.

    • Hi Mike,

      Well, you’ve stated it very plainly there! To move from the theory to practice – isn’t that what it’s really all about? Thank you.

      • You are spot on, there, Dosho. I have — at long last — been able to state it very plainly, thanks particularly to studying Aśvaghoṣa and Nāgārjuna in Sanskrit. Thank you for noticing. What it’s really all about, IMO, is serving the dharma that leads in the direction of dropping off all views. That dharma is not a Soto dharma or a Rinzai dharma or even a Zen dharma. Neither is it a Theravada dharma or a Tibetan dharma.

          • I do not agree that the dharma of Gautama Buddha includes other dharmas. Rather, I follow Nāgārjuna’s teaching that it was in the direction of abandoning all other dharmas that he taught the true dharma, putting compassion into practice. I bow down to him – Gautama.

    • The term 行 xing2 is neutral as to singular or plural. The English translator chooses which is appropriate to the context, singular or plural. . 行 has many connotations, including to walk/to do/act/move/travel/practice/be capable etc.

      I disagree that using 行 for samskara, and its grammatical permutations, made the teaching of co-dependent origination meaningless. Samskara has two meanings: the second of the 12 links in the chain of co-dependent origination and the fourth of the five skandhas. The example from Nagarjuna is a standard approach to the 12 links, which by breaking any link in the chain the whole chain is broken. Nagarjuna is pointing out that the sitting meditation method of “knowing the absence of activity” of the 2nd link is a good practice method for the liberation of breaking the chain.

      There is no evidence that the Chinese Chan teachers or Japanese Zen teachers were not aware of this all because of the lack of a good translation into the Chinese. The emphasis by Sixth Ancestor Hui Neng on “no thought” is exactly the practice of “the absence of those doings that are grounded on ignorance,” because he used the term “thought” for that which is grounded on ignorance as duality and “no” as the absence of duality as that dependence on ignorance. By teaching “no thought” Zen masters were teaching the practice of breaking the chain of dependent origination. The difference between the Chinese and Japanese Zen masters and the monk-scholars like Nagarjuna is that Nagarjuna teaches within a context of doctrine while the Zen masters teach in a very common person approach without depending on language of doctrine.

      Dogen too, taught this “no thought” practice in his central and most important text on meditation practice “Fukanzazengi.” Indeed, he used several various phrasings to make the point:

      (1) “Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good
      or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the
      conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views.” Here Dogen is stating the same thing in several ways which all amount to Nagarjuna’s instruction “know the absence of these doings grounded in ignorance.” Good and bad are grounded in ignorance. Pros and cons are grounded in ignorance. Movements of the conscious mind are grounded in ignorance. The gauging of all thoughts and views is grounded on ignorance. All of these are “those doings” of the 2nd link, samskara.

      (2) “You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.” Here Dogen is again teaching the absence of those doings grounded on ignorance. Intellectual understanding is grounded on ignorance, so ceasing it is the absence of those doings grounded on ignorance. Instead of using the intellectual teaching of “doings grounded on ignorance,” Dogen uses the practical phrase “intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech.” But it is the same teaching.

      (3) “Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen (sitting meditation).” Here Dogen is echoing Sixth Ancestor Huineng and following the genuine Zen/Chan tradition scrupulously.”
      So it is not that Zen masters did not understand the doctrine of co-dependent arising, but they did not see any real benefit in emphasizing it to their students because clinging to the doctrine is itself one of “those doings grounded on ignorance.” The Zen masters preferred the approach of pointing directly to the doings themselves (such as thinking good or evil, intellectual understanding, movements of consciousness, etc.) and teach the meditation of their ceasing or absence.

      • I served a Zen Master named Gudo Nishijima who emphasized very strongly the importance of theory. So not only working from theory to practice but also, on the basis of diligent practice, re-establishing true theory. Did you hear that Dosho? For my teacher 行, as the 2nd of the 12 links, meant action itself, and it did not have any negative connotations. So that was a stumbling block for him. In Nāgārjuna’s teaching saṁskārāḥ are doings, acts that are put together, confected, fabricated, as opposed to action that seems to do itself, spontaneously This negative connotation of saṁskāra is not conveyed by the character 行. So I know that this was a stumbling block for my teacher. How much more has it been a stumbling block for those Zen masters who have emphasized sitting practice but thought light of theory? I dare say that the translation of saṁskārāḥ as 行 was a stumbling block even for Master Dogen himself. This conclusion is the fruit of more than 30 years of digging. So I was very encouraged by Dosho’s response of “Thank you” — not because I am particularly desperate to be thanked, but because I would like to see my digging bearing some real fruit at last.

  5. We can be non-sectarian without ignoring the differences between traditions, & without supposing that Buddhism is one in its essence. For instance, it seems obvious that Chan owes more to indigenous Chinese spirituality than to the teachings of the sage of the Shakyans. It sits at the center of Chinese monastic life as the Daoist cuckoo’s egg in the nest of Dharma. The Caodong lineage’s practice of Silent Illumination is even now recognizable as zuowang, “sitting in forgetfulness.” That method—it is a method, whatever our teachers may say to the contrary—is every bit as worthy to be considered mainstream as the Chan that emphasizes kanhua. Dōgen, who visited China in the heyday of the gongan collections, relied heavily upon the cases for literary & didactic purposes. There is scant evidence that he applied them in a way similar to that of the practitioners of huatou. In any case, we are free to use them as we like, & shikan-taza as currently taught is a lovely conundrum in itself.

    • Richard, No doubt … and yet the underlying narrative that supports the current generally held view of shikantanaza is largely a most-Meiji construction (with some Menzan thrown in for good measure) for which there is mixed evidence in Dogen’s actual writings, which requires that a good deal the Dogen said be ignored or interpreted to mean the opposite of what he said, and is generally unsupported by scholarly research. Dogen doesn’t use the phrase “silent illumination” even once in his vast writings because, imv, his aim was to reconcile the koan practice of his Eisai lineage, with the Caodong lineage practice he encountered, with the wato method emphasized by the Dahui lines (which seems to have won the hearts and minds of practitioners). And he succeeded in deriving a creative synthesis. Caodong was in decline in Dogen’s time largely because of the emphasis on what could veer into a quietistic trap. When Dogen’s work is viewed from the perspective of koan introspection, it comes most fully alive (again, obviously, imv), as he works the practice of identity action in daily life through the narrative lens of koan. See Zazenshin. Thank you for your comment. Dosho

    • “We can be non-sectarian without ignoring the differences between traditions, & without supposing that Buddhism is one in its essence.”
      I agree 100% with the first half of the sentence and 0% with the last half. As I see the lay of the land, i.e., the mind ground, we cannot be “non-sectarian” without seeing that Buddha Dharma is one vehicle in essence. If we only see multiple vehicles and don’t see how they are all one vehicle, then I do not see any way to avoid the sectarian claims and conflicts of people who see their own vehicle as the genuine vehicle and the others as wrong vehicles.
      I do agree that instruction in shikantaza is really instruction of a koan in itself.

        • Alan’s comment alerts me to the imprecision of my language, & the use of “non-sectarian” in particular. I have no problem with the existence of sects, schools, or even Vehicles & Turnings of the Wheel. What we wish to avoid is the excessive partisanship & exclusivism that leads to rivalry & rancorous disputation, as well as institutional isolation & segregation on the grounds of ideology. Let us rejoice at the array of items on offer in the marketplace of memes. Would we want all spiritual authority to flow from a single source? I think not. Be that as it may, perhaps “pan-sectarianism” is the better term here. Of the several traditions each has its contemplative
          strategies & techniques, its jewels of wisdom, & its stabilizers, filler, preservatives, & packaging. We are free to select from among the treasures. As for the truth claims, metaphysical & otherwise, of the several
          Buddhistic traditions, they can be ignored or forgotten or come to seem unimportant in the light of this or that kind of awakening, but they cannot be made identical. & shouldn’t we be wary of essentialism?

          • We should be wary of essentialism or any other kind of “ism” or “wasm”, but not of that which is essential to all differences.

  6. Great post here!

    I will quibble with the phrase: “punch line.” It is a catchy phrase, and makes people perk up to wonder what that means, but using the term “punch line” for the huatou practice of focusing on the “turning word(s)” of a koan is misleading to people who do not have any history with koans. It feeds into the very mistaken notion that a koan is a joke, riddle, or puzzle. The term “punch line” only makes sense in the connotation that it is the “line” or “word” with which one “punches” or “penetrates” through the veil of self-delusion. Huatou means “word-head,” or “head of the word(s).” “Head” is used as in the “head” waters of a river; and here it means the head waters of the “turning word(s)” of the koan. Huatou refers to the practice of turning around our awareness of the word to the head-source of the word. We usually objectify words as thoughts, and huatou practice is to turn around the habit of the outflows of objectifying thoughts to see directly the source of the thought before it becomes a word-object. It is similar to the koan “what is your original face?” or in other words, the huatou is how to make the “turning word” phrase of any koan become the koan “what is the source of this turning

    As for Dogen and koans, I agree 100% that people of today are misrepresenting
    Dogen’s relationship with koans. I hear Zen teachers say that Dogen was
    critical of koan practice, when actually Dogen was just critical of wrong
    approaches to koan practice. The wrong approach is of course the “figuring
    it out” approach, e.g., searching for an intellectual understanding of the
    koan. Dahui, the 12th century popularizer of the huatou method also strenuously
    criticized this misguided approach. For example, in his essay “The Sutra
    of Mountains and Waters” (Sansui kyô, 山水經) Dogen lists several ways that we can view mountains and think that our insight is “true realization” but we would be wrong. Dogen then goes on with a list of items of practice that he criticizes, and the list looks suspiciously like a list relating to koan and huatou practice. Here it is in the translation by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi:

    “Turning an object and turning the mind is rejected by the great sage. Explaining the mind and explaining true nature is not agreeable to Buddha ancestors. Seeing into mind and seeing into true nature is the activity of people outside the way. Set words and phrases are not the words of liberation. There is something free from all of these understandings: ‘Green mountains are always walking,’ and ‘Eastern mountains travel on water.’ You should study this in detail.”

    Some Zen teachers take this as Dogen even saying that kensho (“seeing into true nature”) is not Buddha Dharma. But what Dogen is criticizing here are “all of these understandings,” that is, not kensho itself but the understandings about kensho that people take for the real thing. We can simply observe that after making this list of false understandings that Dogen says plainly how to arrive at correct understanding free from understandings: “‘Green mountains are always walking,’ and ‘Eastern mountains travel on water.’ You should study this in detail.”

    Saying “You should study this in detail” is Dogen’s way of pointing to koan study, and here the koan he is saying should be studied is “‘Green mountains are always walking,’ and ‘Eastern mountains travel on water.'” All Dogen’s words in all his Shobogenzo essays are always pointing directly to the detailed study of koans.

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